Witten's Christmas Letter for 2007

Tauwhare Road
New Zealand
December 22-23, 2007
 Audio version audio icon

Well, 2007 has been a year of massive milestones, climactic celebrations, and terrific travel (particularly for Ian). Here's a synopsis. Anna and Dan were married. Both Pam and Ian turned the big six oh and had stunningly elaborate, but completely different, surprise parties. Nikki -- well, she played a key role in organizing all the above. The three of us went on many congenial hikes. Pam and Ian embarked on an adventurous sailing trip and returned safe and sound; they also had several visits to various cottages on Waiheke Island near Auckland. Together we spent a glorious week with friends in Manhattan. We both visited N. Ireland, though separately, and Ian went on solo adventures to Canada, Fiji, Mexico, South Africa, Namibia, US, Canada, Austria, China, and Vietnam (in that order). He also climbed a high mountain in Malaysia and went on an exciting mini-trek near Tibet. And we entertained visitors, played music, kept the sheep safely grazing -- the usual domestic stuff. Of course there was work, though Pam has finished with all that now. As you can imagine, it's been an exhausting but extremely stimulating year. And -- just a little illustration of the impending idiocies of old age -- during the year both Pam and Ian separately attempted to board airplanes carrying forbidden weapons. Pam was discovered by Security at Auckland airport with a penknife in her handbag (observed, unfortunately for her, by Ian, shocked at her carelessness) and Ian in Kunming, China with a penknife in his carry-on pack (fortunately Pam was nowhere to be seen). Anyway, now you know the highlights of our year, feel free to quit -- or read on if you dare! (Maybe you should at least turn to the last paragraph for some surprising -- perhaps not so surprising! -- news from the newlyweds.)

St Patrick's day 2007 will be forever etched in our memories as the day of our firstborn's fairytale wedding. It took place on a beach at Oakura in Northland, near Dan's family "bach" (seaside cottage) and close to where he had proposed two years before. On the beach stands a pohutukawa tree, and in its shade was a circle of shells that guests had made in the sand. In the circle stood Anna and Dan and the celebrant for the (secular) service that they had composed. Looking out, the water sparkled in the sunshine; beyond that, a verdant peninsula a few miles away; to the south, a few islands dotted the open sea.

Dan had planned to rise up out of the sea like Neptune in a wetsuit. Anna had planned to arrive on the back of a tractor. The celebrant had planned to row across by boat. But in the end common sense prevailed. The wedding party strolled across the sand from the luxury bach we had rented on the next beach along (no road access: you have to drive along the beach). In all our finery (including sandals and hats, but no tie) we rounded the point and came in sight of the wedding venue. As we neared the little knot of people under the tree Nikki's friend Eve, a budding opera singer, opened up with a lilting Irish air.

A campsite backs directly on to the beach. You step up the grassy bank and there stands the marquee, its length entirely open to the magnificent sea view. Earlier that day Anna and Dan had ignited an enormous bonfire that shortly became an oven for the wedding breakfast: hot rocks in a pit, food carefully wrapped in wire baskets piled on top; covered up with earth like a subterranean feast -- yes, a traditional Maori hangi (organized by Maori friends from Hamilton). Following the marriage was a joining-of-the-families ceremony in which Jeannie and Pam, the two Mums, mingled sand brought from their homes. Champagne on the beach and a few group snaps before the happy couple took their youthful entourage off to a neighboring beach for serious photography amongst the rocks. Meanwhile a jazz band -- Ian on clarinet, his brother Brian on trombone, Craig on keyboard and Tony on bass, and Eve and Pam's niece Emily as singers -- provided live music while guests milled around with champagne and canapes. Apart from the hangi, all food was prepared by Anna and Dan's good friend, a professional chef who had flown over from Melbourne.

Eventually the happy couple returned, to be greeted by specially-written songs like My Favorite Things (words by Nikki):

Vodka martinis and cold pints of lager
Garlic stuffed olives and drinking much harder
Attractive young barmen with Singapore slings
These are a few of my favorite things

... carries on in a similar vein, ending ...

When the bar shuts,
When my hair curls,
When Dan's getting mad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad

And Girl from IpanemaMatangi. Gradually we assembled for the wedding breakfast. Seafood starters (raw material provided by Dan's dad Peter, an avid fisherman): oyster shooters, squid salad, that kind of thing. The whole party went off to dig up the hangi, followed by musical interludes, serving, eating, drinking, speeches, a wedding pyramid of cupcakes ... The cloudless sky gradually turned indigo over the sea view to one side of the open marquee and night fell gently on the celebrations. Later we trouped towards the beach for a stunning performance of fire pois by Dan's sister Katie, standing on the beach in the dark. Poi dancing, a Maori art, usually involves white balls on ropes, held in the hands and swung in interweaving circular patterns, but here the pois were balls of flame twirling in fiery arcs and ellipses against a dark sea view backdrop; mesmerizing. As the pois died away we were treated to a magnificent firework display on the beach. Back to the marquee and dancing for the kids (and, indeed, for many oldies too, including Pam's mother and, of course, us) until the wee small hours.

We provided brunch at the campsite the next day, and sampled for the first time the gastronomic delights of re-fried hangi. Young men were cooking up with gusto in the campsite kitchen. In fact, perhaps the nicest aspect of the whole wedding that everything was taken care of by friends: cooking -- and catching! -- the food, singing, music, the "chapel" of shells, fire displays, Nikki's partner John was the MC, ... even the clearing up. The organization was superb, thanks mainly to Peter and Jeannie, with whom we had spent a delightful long weekend a month before chewing over the details. The wedding was the most lovely experience. You'll find a photograph album at www.nzdl.org/books if you're interested.

Equally memorable, though not on quite the same scale, were our respective 60th birthday celebrations. Ian's came first, and what struck him later was how everyone had lied to him: his wife, daughters, admin assistant, our friends, Nikki's friends -- everyone! We were quietly spit-roasting a whole sheep by the swimming pool for a joint Ian/Nikki birthday celebration with a few friends. Pam's brother arrived from Auckland and, shortly afterwards, Anna called from Australia -- or rather, as it soon transpired, from her cellphone in our driveway. Ian was astonished -- he had tried to persuade her to fly over for the party but she said she was otherwise engaged. Ha! Then Craig and Kirsten arrived -- from New York! And Tim, from Christchurch. And Rob, from Pittsburgh. The guests just kept on arriving, and we had a great party, including music from Ian's clarinet group and jazz from Ian, Tim, Craig, and our friend Tony (our one and only rehearsal for the wedding). Lolling around at 2AM it turned out that a young guest had brought her fire pois (our first experience of this incendiary art) and she danced in the garden to entertain us while we looked out over the swimming pool sipping our whisky. Sparks flew!

The most lasting surprise was a fabulous Birthday Book that Tim and Craig had produced, containing wonderful tributes from 75 students and colleagues, along with 100 photos (some dating back almost 40 years). Ian sure seems to have influenced a lot of lives! -- and it was great to hear from them all. The book contains a formal paper ("Analysis and Theory of Ian's Birthday"); puzzles; original artwork; a lengthy historical account covering his 38-year friendship with his M.Sc. supervisor; reminiscences; messages from grand-grad-students; mountains, martinis and music; skis and sailboats; pictures of all his books ... the Birthday Book is one of his most treasured possessions. (You can find it at www.nzdl.org/books.)

How on earth to arrange an equally striking, but completely different, celebration for Pam exercised Ian for months on end. Finally we left in the car, with Nikki, on a mystery trip. It was all too obvious from the way the car was loaded down that we couldn't possibly be flying off to a tropical island paradise; nevertheless hope springs eternal and as we approached Auckland Pam was thrown into confusion by a brief feint towards the airport. But as soon as we reached the ferry terminal she guessed the truth: we were making for Craig and Kirsten's historic bach on Waiheke Island. And indeed we were. After settling in and going for a walk on the beach, Ian headed off to get some gin and returned with ... three close friends from Matangi who he had picked up from the ferry instead. Pam was truly astonished.

In his excitement Ian had ostensibly forgotten to get the gin and went out for it an hour or two later, only to return with ... Anna, from a later ferry. (Despite having pulled off the cellphone-from-just outside trick so successfully on Ian just a few months before, she managed to sucker Pam in again.) The celebrations were riotous. And when next morning Ian popped out for milk to make pancakes -- by this time Pam was getting skeptical -- he returned with ... a recorder trio from Auckland with whom Pam used to play a year or two back. He also produced her recorder, and Pam was delighted to spend 24 hours making music with her friends. They're excellent musicians, and playing with them was a rare treat for Pam -- and also for us, the audience. Finally all the visitors departed, leaving the four of us together in this idyllic setting for a few more days for Pam's actual birthday. The Wittens had fun! And Pam has a Birthday Book too: a photographic memento of this lovely week.

Well, those were the three big family events of 2007. But in between we have packed more than enough living for a normal year. We didn't start the year out on Beulah -- the weather was dicey, and anyway Ian had been sailing with our Calgary friend Jo and her son Simon for a couple of days between Christmas and the New year -- but at a party with friends in Hamilton.

A few days later we went with Nikki on a rather lovely overnight hike that she had organized up Dundle Hill, near Waitomo. We started out through bush and, climbing higher, emerged onto grassy farmland dotted with little copses. Walking through woods Ian spied two wild pigs. Man and pig stared at each other for a frozen second -- it's not clear who was more surprised -- before sow and piglet scuttled off into the undergrowth. We climbed up a not-so-little hill to arrive, breathless and legsore, at a huge cabin at the very summit where we were to spend the night. Described as a "new-age" hut, this luxury dwelling boasted bunkrooms for dozens of people and a common-room with verandah to match. We had it all to ourselves (which, the guest book indicated, was not unusual). We admired superb 270° vistas over the green Waitomo landscape, tranquil hilly pasture and woodland, set off by the snow-covered peaks of Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu in the distance. We continued the circular route next day, beginning with a steep descent down a narrow ridge to where the Waitomo river emerges from a large opening in a limestone cliff to begin its meandering journey. We followed the stream valley back into pastures, silent apart from the occasional bleating of sheep, obviously surprised to see visitors. Finally we entered the lower bush, had lunch beside a spectacular little gorge, and returned to the car.

Forthcoming nuptials meant that brother Brian's visit left no time for sailing -- and sailing to the wedding was strictly prohibited by the powers that be. So in late January Ian set off solo, sailing north to Kawau in a cracking wind. At dawn the next day, heart in mouth, he set his course for Great Barrier Island -- a trip that, round here, almost passes for ocean sailing. The wind was strong and, according to the forecast, would increase to almost unmanageable levels later in the day, but the solo passage should have been completed by then. And it was. Just ten minutes after dropping anchor in Port Fitzroy he saw Pam's plane pass overhead, and an hour later she arrived at the dock and he rowed her aboard.

Port Fitzroy is a lovely extended harbor, well sheltered from the ocean outside, with delightful little bays, and we planned to doodle around together for awhile and return as we had arrived, by sea and air respectively. But after a couple of pleasant days we sailed up to the north end of Great Barrier Island and, because the weather seemed so settled, made the momentous decision to head down the other side, the exposed East side, where the next thing across the ocean is Chile. We continued in light and variable breezes and anchored in an remote and idyllic bay halfway down the Eastern side of the island. We swam ... and then, afterwards, saw a shark! (in that order). We spent the next day ashore hiking, but disaster struck as we launched our dinghy into the surf to return to Beulah. A freak wave caught it, with Pam inside, slewed it broadsides, and tipped it over. Pam fell out, crashing into Ian, knocking him over. Copious quantities of blood. But whose? Ian had a bruised chin against which Pam had split her head open: source of blood identified. As the sea ran red (remember that shark?) we sought a second opinion from onlookers. Some suggested shaving her head and applying butterfly bandages, but we chose the cold seawater application and wait-and-see technique. As the sun set that evening the tail of a comet (McNaught) extended like a ray of sunshine from behind the crest of a hill to the Milky Way far above our heads.

The next morning we continued our circumnavigation of Great Barrier Island and after a long but uneventful day's sail dropped the hook that night off the Coromandel Peninsula in Elephant Cove, an enclosed rocky bay set inside a tiny circular islet that is not much bigger. We had done it! Pam had sailed all the way back from Great Barrier to the mainland, a feat we would never have thought possible. We pottered around for a few more days, including a day ashore at Coromandel itself, lunching on some of the tastiest oysters we've ever encountered. Finally, close to home, we stopped for a picnic dinner with our friends Neil and Karen in a bay of Waiheke Island. And that was Beulah's big voyage for 2007.

There were a few more sailing trips that year, including our usual jaunt to the Waiheke Island jazz festival where we stayed with Neil and Karen in their bach. The week after the wedding we again sailed to Waiheke where Craig and Kirsten had rented a luxury bach -- with an "infinity" swimming pool in front, high up above the Waitemata Harbor. There we lived in the lap of luxury with them and two other families -- old friends from Saskatchewan and new ones from Vienna. The guests arrived variously by yacht (us) and helicopter from Auckland airport.

We also did quite a bit of hiking, partly in preparation for Ian's forthcoming assault on Mount Kinabalu. Pam did a first (for her) ascent of nearby Mount Te Aroha ("the love"); in fact we climbed it twice because we didn't quite make it to the top the first time. We hiked The Pinnacles near Thames on the Coromandel Peninsula; one of our favorite walks. Ian and Nikki conquered grueling Mount Karioi near Raglan, which Pam and Ian had climbed a few years before for what Pam vowed was her last time. With Pam we walked to Dicky's Flats in the Karangahake Gorge. And we had a beautiful bush-and-beaches seaside walk at Waihi on the East Coast. You hike up and over the bluff from one beach to the next, walk along the beach, and continue to the next one. Between beaches you're in lush tropical rainforest with occasional magnificent East Coast views: picture verdant green, golden sand, deep sea blue (with islands), and clear sky with puffy white clouds. At one point the trail heads inland through dense bush alongside a tiny rushing stream, twisting and turning, crossing and re-crossing dozens of times, to an impressive waterfall. We love having Nikki with us on these hikes.

Of course, we played music. In fact, at last we bought a decent piano for our home. Pam continued her cello lessons and recorder group in Hamilton. Her birthday music-making sparked off a regular monthly jaunt to Auckland to play with her friends there. Ian played in the orchestra, being lucky enough to fit in three concerts around his travels. In fact, during the run-up to the third he went round the world twice; it interfered with weekly rehearsals less than you would think possible. In this concert, Hamilton's "Proms", he played familiar but extremely challenging music: Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Shostakovich's Festive Overture, and incredibly difficult but very atmospheric pieces from the Harry Potter movie soundtrack. His clarinet group continues to meet each week to eat, talk, laugh, and sometimes even play a little: this year featured an almost equal mix of trio, quartet and quintet evenings.

Pam has finally finished teaching! For several years she has been in charge of music at a primary school one day a week -- recorders, marimbas, and other percussion. This is a voluntary activity for the kids (whose parents pay extra for the lessons), and (to Pam's great credit) most of the school opts to attend. As we said in last year's letter, she was persuaded to teach again this year: well, it's definitely been the last. As usual the year culminated in a school concert organized by Pam. She was presented with a bouquet, eulogized in speeches, and afterwards the school sang Abba's Thank you for the music which they had been secretly practicing. She had to join the singing in order to prevent herself from bursting into tears! All in all teaching music has been a rewarding experience for many years, but she is quite content to finish now.

We entertained a few important visitors, notably two of Ian's sister Pippa's children. Stuart is spending a year in Sydney on medical practice, and as luck would have it the only time he could get away was exactly when Ian was staying with Pippa in N. Ireland. It was weird for both when Stuart called home from our house in Matangi and Ian happened to pick up the phone! But Pam had a great time showing him and his wife Cathy around. Nikki took them out for a day, and then all four (five, with Nikki's partner John) went to see the All Blacks playing Canada. It was the first time any of us had seen our famous national rugby team, and we had excellent seats, right on the try line. Later in the year Stuart's sister Alex came over (she had been visiting Stuart and Cathy in Sydney). We took her for an exciting day sail on Beulah (about which she had heard so much), in strong and blustery weather. We enjoyed showing her around the natural wonders that surround us, including Bridal Veil Falls near Raglan, which happened to be in spectacularly full flood; while Nikki enjoyed showing her around the bars and clubs of Hamilton.

And then there was travel, and plenty of it. Ian tripped off to Belfast in June on his annual pilgrimage to see his Mum, staying round the corner with Pippa. Mum is in good form, but some years ago Pippa's husband John was tragically struck by early-onset Alzheimer's and now, sadly, lives in hospital. As usual Ian spent time on the water, messing about in boats, and took lots of walks in the beautiful Irish countryside. Then to Vancouver for a conference -- it's such a nice city, one of Nikki's favorites, but rife with destitute homeless at the poor end of town -- and on to Suva, Fiji, to give a UNESCO-sponsored course on Greenstone (Ian's Digital Library software). There had been a military takeover in Fiji, and the NZ Ambassador had just been forcibly ejected from the country, so there was some discussion as to whether Ian should cry off. But to heck with the danger; professorial duty called. As it turned out the city was peaceful, but he was advised under no circumstances to criticize the government. He had no time to relax in that Pacific island paradise, though; back home in a hurry for just one week before the next trip.

This time it was to Kuching in East Malaysia (on the island of Borneo) where Ian spent a week at a conference. This was one of his several "invited talks" at conferences this year, which account for the excess of travel. He almost caused an international incident at the lavish conference banquet by asking for a beer. As international guest of honor no request could be denied, but ... this is a Muslim country and alcohol is forbidden at official events (Ian didn't know). Nevertheless, he got his beer. He saw Iban longhouses and crafts, music and dancing from many Sarawak cultures. He visited an Orangutan park and saw about half a dozen Orangutans in the wild: cute if not exactly cuddly. One kid held three bananas, one with each foot and one in his hand, swinging lustily round the branches with the other hand! From there it was off to Kinabalu for the big climb. He had climbed Mount Kinabalu (4095 meters) in 1995, and it was difficult then; people thought he was crazy to go again "at his age." And indeed it did seem to have grown quite a lot in the intervening 12 years. The path was much steeper -- maybe it had been re-engineered? But the scenery was spectacular. (See our 1995 Christmas Letter for a description of the hike.) He went with a Malaysian friend, and a young English guy joined the group; the ages of these two companions were 37 and 21 which, when put together, make ... less than 60. Anyway, he did get to the top at dawn, as planned, though it was pretty challenging and he'll have to train hard before the next ascent in 12 years time. On returning to Kota Kinabalu he had an interesting time trying to find a (therapeutic) leg massage; since it's a Muslim country "Massage parlors" don't appear in the Yellow Pages! And then a day at a university in Kuala Lumpur before the flight home.

The next trip was a week in New York for Pam and Ian together. We stayed with Craig and Kirsten (who feature strongly in this Christmas letter!) in their penthouse apartment, and had a fabulous time. We walked and walked round the city, visiting all our old haunts and finding some new ones too. C&K took us off to Storm King Sculpture Park in Connecticut, a spacious hillside park with over 100 enormous abstract sculptures. Back in town Pam discovered The Cloisters at the north end of Manhattan Island, which is a purpose-built museum housing medieval artifacts. Some eponymous cloisters from ruined French monasteries have been restored and incorporated into the museum building. She found it all quite enchanting (if, in deepest New York, a little bizarre). We wined, and dined, and met up with old friends Martin and Andrew from our San Francisco days. Ian also fitted in a little work. We love New York; it was a holiday that was simultaneously stimulating and relaxing!

Then we separated: Ian to Morelia, Mexico and Pam to N. Ireland. Ian was on a round-the-world trip that didn't include Europe (which, apparently, is almost unprecedented). He gave his talk in an atmospheric old library in Morelia and departed early the next morning for ... Africa! This was the itinerary from hell: Morelia - Houston - Washington - Johannesburg - Cape Town - Windhoek, Namibia -- although he did break the journey with a most enjoyable evening in Cape Town with old friends. Windhoek is high (1700 meters), which gives it a hot, dry, pleasant climate. He was met by a University driver who regaled him with the great African success story of Robert Mugabe, how he had wrested Zimbabwe's ancestral land back from the whites who stole it and returned it to the people. It was interesting (and a trifle scary) to hear this great despot being hailed as a hero! That afternoon on a drive in the veldt Ian saw, in the wild, a giraffe (yes!), baboons, wildebeest, hartebeest, ostriches, springboks, warthogs, guinea fowl, plus a dead kudu. Oh, and bloody great ants as well. He spent six days in Windhoek, giving a Greenstone course at the University. It's a German-built town, unnaturally clean and tidy, and far too nice-looking to seem African (except that his hotel loo didn't work properly). In fact it's possibly the most boring place in the known universe. But on Ian's course were participants from Malawi, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe. Imagine strolling round a supermarket with a Zimbabwean who is filming the fruit and vegetable bins with his movie camera to show the folks back home!

An unwelcome surprise awaited Ian on his return. At Auckland airport, when extracting his hiking boots for the standard New Zealand defumigation, he saw that his luggage had been rifled and a laptop, camera (with all the Africa pictures), and brand new iPhone (irreplaceable in New Zealand) stolen. The route had involved a 7-hour layover at Johannesburg airport: ample time to scan luggage, spot valuables, and break in. Airline insurance does not cover electronic goods: the only item they could replace was the broken lock which the thieves had thoughtfully returned to his bag!

Soon it was off again, this time for Omaha, Nebraska. Never been there? -- don't bother. It's most famous for the invention of (a) the bobby-pin, and (b) Gerald Ford. You know, small Midwestern American cities have extravagantly wide streets and buildings that exude money (Omaha is a huge banking center), but appallingly dissolute homeless people lurk in dark corners of city parks and the few souls that haunt the deserted center at night have a threatening aspect that is almost reminiscent of the heady dangers of Africa. Then to Chicago, staying with friends in the University area -- what a different ambience! -- for a night, including a Halloween party where some were dressed as George Bush, our planet's spookiest ghoul. On to Oakville, Canada (near Toronto), for a lovely and relaxing weekend reunion with my (dear departed) Godfather's family (thanks, Pippa!). These people are responsible for initiating and nurturing a young Irish boy's connections with Canada all those years ago. From there to Graz, Austria, for another invited talk -- preceded by a day hike in the mountains in gorgeous autumnal weather: clear sunny skies. And he saw a family of ibex. Then, all too quickly, home -- without time even for topfenstrudel mit schlagobers.

Home for all too short a spell. Soon Ian was traveling again, this time to Shangri-La (or close to it)! He spent a week's holiday in western China prior to a conference in Vietnam. Arriving at Kunming ("city of perpetual spring") in the province of Yunnan, he was met by Shaoqun, his Waikato PhD student, and her husband Xiaofeng, his Waikato research assistant, who had been visiting their home town. And a memorable adventure began: a week's full-on oriental experience where other Westerners were rarely seen and knives and forks might never have been invented. Early the next morning we took off for Lijiang, a short distance but a whole new culture. China has about 50 minority groups, almost all in the western part, and Lijiang is the center of the Naxi people and home to several other minorities too. These people have one of the world's few living pictographic languages. They're extraordinarily open and pleasant -- Lijiang is said to have inspired the fictional Shangri-La, though it is very different topographically. And the Naxi are clean. The streets are spotless. Water from the Himalayas rushes through wide, deep trenches that serve as gutters: water that is sparkling and drinkable. Toilets, though Eastern-style, are clean too.

The Yangtze river (here called the Jinsha river, or Jinsha Jiang) flows from the Himalayas and travels southwards, parallel with and adjacent to the Mekong and a third river called the Salween (here called Nu Jiang). The three run parallel near a place in Yunnan that really is called "Shangri-La." Salween, the westernmost, meanders through Myanmar and eventually finds its way into the Andaman Sea. Mekong, in the middle, enters the South China Sea at its delta in Vietnam. But the Yangtze, in contrast, does a complete about-turn at a place called Shigu ("stone drum"); then heads east; and after many adventures reaches the sea at Shanghai -- creating, along the way, the country that we know as China today.

We took a car from Lijiang to overlook the great first bend of the Yangtze at Shigu, a notable point of singularity on the Earth's surface, and then began a 2½ day trek along Tiger Leaping Gorge, a fearsome gorge where the Yangtze shows off its awesome power. We hiked up high (to 3000 meters elevation) for a day, all the while gazing across at the beautiful, mystical, snow-capped peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. (A family of wild pandas was spotted here not many years ago). Then down low, beside the raging torrent, along hazardous trails cut through the solid rock of the riverside cliffs. We stayed in Naxi guesthouses; clean, hospitable, and very oriental (no English spoken here!). Although mid-winter there was no heating: people whiled away the dark hours frozen in bed! We ate outside in courtyards, Chinese-style, clutching our bowls of soup and shivering as the frigid chill of night descended each evening. On rising in the pitch-black early morning, wearing everything we had, we breakfasted outside clutching our steamed buns and bowls of "congee," thin rice porridge -- and, once, Tibetan sesame and yak butter tea. The days were gorgeous: sunny, warm, brisk; what our family calls "Calgary weather."

We took a lonely ferry across the Yangtze, spent a night in another village, and bussed back to Lijiang. This country is riven by mountain ranges and rivers into little villages, sunk in pastoral valleys with plentiful irrigation water and terraced agriculture -- vegetable gardens, with tobacco and coffee as cash crops. The isolation is tremendous. Our bus took several hours to ascend laboriously out of the village to a mountain ridge high above. The day before we had been traveling (by "taxi") along a hairy road when behind us a cloud of dust signaled a rock-fall that we had only just escaped. A hundred rock-falls close the road through this Yangtze gorge each year, incurring several ghastly deaths. Tourist buses are prohibited, and insurance companies refuse to sell vehicle insurance. Western China is remote -- and exciting!

Back in Lijiang we spent a day in another unbelievably picturesque village nearby, again with clean water rushing beside every street, occasionally used for power (waterwheels), cooking (washing vegetables), and laundry. Yes, apparently toddlers do fall in occasionally, which must be hazardous given the water depth and speed of flow. Local people wear all kinds of colorful ethnic costumes. As well as Naxi there were Tibetans and folk from several other minority groups. Although many tourists strolled around, they were all Chinese: there was literally not a Westerner to be seen (except in the mirror!). Once, sitting inside in a courtyard for lunch, we heard very loud firecrackers in the street and rushed outside to find that they signaled the death of the old man next door.

Ian could go on and on until he runs out of paper (or file space on his laptop). The food was fabulous. There is little discernable difference between a home and a restaurant. Usually there was no menu: Shaoqun would head into the kitchen for a hygiene check (they always passed the test), where vegetables and pieces of meat were laid out on a large table. In a long conversation she would discuss with the women what dishes we wanted and how they would cook them. Pretty well everything was wok fried (even, apparently, yummy green vegetable dishes that seemed instead to be lightly steamed), and in just a few minutes steaming food would be served to our table, dish after dish. Typically we had four dishes, plus rice and soup, between the three of us. Some were highly spiced, and it was all delicious.

All good things come to an end, and after a day or two back in Kunming where Ian met Shaoqun and Xiaofeng's four parents it was on to Hanoi for the conference. Hanoi was great -- especially the famous "water puppets." But being a busy, noisy, bustling city -- though we were staying at a cheap guesthouse in the old quarter, which was interesting -- it paled in comparison with our recent experiences of Yunnan villages. The inhabitants, however, were extremely friendly, welcoming people.

Oh, and now, at last, for the really big news. Pam finally won a coveted place as a member of the Matangi Garden Club! They have strictly limited numbers and she's been on the waiting list for many years. They meet every month and visit a different garden. But mainly they gossip. Pam is now able to keep her fingers tightly on the Matangi social pulse.

Every year we say it again: this year has been action-packed to a degree that seems almost ridiculous (and, in this age of carbon footprints, shameful). Once again we've failed our New Year's resolution to do less and write shorter Christmas letters. As always it's been fun, and fun writing. Remember: to write is to taste life twice; again it's a good taste. And that news we mentioned at the beginning? Yes, you guessed: we are due to become grandparents (next May). But there's more. Before that, in March, Nikki is leaving on a one-way ticket to the N Hemisphere. And Pam and Ian are hoping to spend the second half of 2008 in Italy and Germany (come and visit us in Siena and Heidelberg). But more of that next year. Until then, may peace be with you.

Pam and Ian